What Makes News, News
Lynne Cheney, wife of (vice) President Dick Cheney, came to the University of Maryland this past February 29 expecting a free hour on C-Span to plug her budding career as an author of children’s books at an event billed, oddly, as a "Policy Watch." Lynne Cheney’s early writing career produced her 1981 début novel Sisters, a tawdry gothic romance, complete with scenes of hot lesbian lovemaking. But, instead of getting to rebrand herself as a more maternal, more heterosexual sort of writer, Cheney now found herself in the middle of a free speech/censorship controversy that pitted the university and its heavy-handed police force against three students, myself included.
The controversy eventually ended up making national news via USA Today, The Washington Post and Washington Times, as well as the online Drudge Report, Salon, NPR, C-Span, and countless other outlets that ranged from Christian right to the Gay and Lesbian center left. None of this happened by accident: the press frenzy was the result of us three students trying to play the media, while the media tried to do the same to us. It was a lesson in the art of culture war spin.
C-Span Goes for the Ratings
This is how it went down. During the Q & A session, which consisted of the moderator, Doug Besharov, reading notecards filled out by the audience, Cheney downplayed the significance of the genocide of the Native American population, blaming it on "Europeans."
"Bullshit," shouted Michael Cawdery, a student seated to my left. Cheney stumbled over the rest of her awkward answer, shifting gears and bemoaning the evils of slavery.
"Do you support reparations for slavery?" asked Chuck DeVoe, seated down to my right.
"No, I don’t support reparations," responded Dr. Cheney.
As the show ended and the applause died down, I threw in one last question.
"Dr. Cheney, would you attend the wedding of your daughter Mary if it were held in San Francisco this week?" SF was then defiantly holding gay weddings at city hall and Cheney’s daughter, Mary, if you didn’t already know, is a lesbian whose resume includes a stint with Coors Brewing Co. as its gay community liaison.
Dr. Cheney looked out into the crowd, blinking slowly, with a look that said, "I heard something, but it makes no sense." After several thick seconds she turned to her right, shook Besharov’s hand, and the show was over. That’s when the police descended.
We were surrounded by angry officers, threatened with arrest, detained for questioning, told we’d be charged with disorderly conduct via mail, and then released. The next day the student paper, the Diamondback, gave brief play to the incident, noting it in the second-to-last paragraph of a long story about Cheney’s children’s books:
University Police forcibly removed three students at the end of the program after they called out several questions outside of the format, including a final question after the show ended about Cheney’s openly gay daughter Mary and same-sex marriages in San Francisco.Had we left the incident buried as it was, the Diamondback story would have been its grave. But to get anyone big interested, the story needed a hook. After all, two days after the event it was already old news—discarded in the newsroom recycling bin. To pick it back up I penned a guest op-ed for the student paper blasting it for its tepid and inaccurate coverage. Depending on the size of the university, there’s a good chance someone is, as unlikely as it sounds, actually reading the paper. In the DC area, it may very well be Amy Argetsinger, the Post’s higher education reporter, who says she reads every local college newspaper, painful as that may sound. She initially missed the buried Cheney story, and also missed my op-ed, not often finding News in the opinions of college students.
Christians and Pagans
But once the op-ed was out there the emails started flying in. From across the country people wrote to express their outrage and pledged to alert what media they could. The first semi-real media to contact me came the day after the op-ed. It was Keith Orr, a DJ with FNX radio, a gay and lesbian syndicated network in New England. They had me on the air that Monday. I gave out Lynne Cheney’s address, and the emails continued to flow.
One message came from Jim Brown of the Christian American Family Radio (motto: "something good in the air"). Hesitant, I called him and assumed he was trying to draw me out as a wacko-radical when his first question was, "Don’t you think this whole thing is fascist?"
"I wouldn’t quite say it’s fascism, Jim," I replied. It turned out he was a good guy, and put together a sympathetic story that "the other AP" (Agape Press: "Reliable News From a Christian Source") picked up. The Christian press then ran with it—although this was not universally favorable coverage, of course. On a side note, in my op-ed I accidentally referred to Lynne Cheney, instead of her daughter, as a "former gay-rights advocate." The Christian press carried that mistake, though, and from then on seriously referred to Dick’s wife as a "former gay-rights advocate." Not a whole lot of fact-checking going on in God’s publishing world, apparently. But the story still wasn’t News. Not even the Diamondback followed up.
Under the Radar
I have plenty of contacts in the left-wing press, but they agreed with each other that this story was "under their radar." The left-wing press is in a tricky situation when it comes to news. They only like to report Big stories, but don’t like to follow other outlets. So that leaves them with news only when it’s Big and unbroken. But, just as we thought the story might die, the university administration mailed us a gift. I was to appear before them for a preliminary discussion of what charges, if any, would be filed. Now we had proof that Goliath, the university, was pressing forward and against us little Davids simply because we had asked difficult questions.
John Aravosis, the Director of DearMary.com, a group dedicated to pressuring Mary Cheney to take a stand for gay rights, then contacted me, having read about our story in the Christian press. (Why he was reading the Christian press, I never asked.) Together we mapped out a strategy to take the story to the next level.
We needed a hook—since we had gotten the letter two days prior, it was no longer News. We eventually settled on a plan that, over the next two weeks, worked exactly as we had charted it. We first turned to the campus ACLU, knowing we could use the group’s support as a hook to catch the real AP, which would then be the bait for the Post. Once it hit the Post, the bloggers, the Drudge Report, and the other bastard children of the mainstream media—which together form the dysfunctional family that brings America its News—would pick up the story and run.
But this being college, the ACLU was on Spring Break, and so was our story.
Once the campus ACLU returned from Florida, Stuart McPhail, an undergrad who seemed to be the campus ACLU, returned my call. Now armed with the news that the ACLU was to act, Aravosis of DearMary.com contacted an AP reporter he knew, Elizabeth Wolfe. The AP took the bait. I faxed Wolfe every document I had (a fax machine turned out to be the critical piece in this saga), emailed her links to every story, and gave a long interview. That night the AP story ran across the wire.
Earlier that day, on April 1, what easily could have been an April Fool’s joke dropped in my mailbox. The sender was the University of Maryland’s Office of Judicial Programs, and the joke read, "You are charged with violating Part 9 of the Code of Student Conduct, Section (m)."
The timing couldn’t have been better. Cheney had just made news again after her lawyers pressured Penguin Publishing not to republish the second lady’s first novel Sisters, even though Penguin owns the rights. Congress Daily, a paper widely read inside the beltway, then pulled DearMary’s ads just before they were set to run, claiming they didn’t want to attack a member of Cheney’s family. Never mind that Mary Cheney makes six figures working for her father’s re-election campaign. The Cheneys were looking like the bigoted hypocrites and censors that they are.
From the Grave to the Front Page
That night, the Post spotted the AP wire, and we were in business. We ran on the front page of their Metro section that Monday morning. Sunday at midnight, a friend who does little other than surf the Internet, called me, shouting, "You’re on Drudge!"
I spoke with Post reporter Argetsinger later, and she confirmed that it was indeed the ACLU’s involvement that piqued her interest. And that she had spotted it on the wire.
Before the "Cheney incident" I had barely heard of Matt Drudge, whose site apparently sees around 30 million hits a day and is one of the driving forces of the U.S. media. Once the Drudge story hit, it was pretty much out of our hands. The next morning we were on
C-Span’s Washington Journal. NPR called the day after that. Now that it’s a story, O’Reilly may deign to speak with us.
We’ve even seen some international attention. A report from indymedia in the UK, its sub-headline reading "Students who sttod [sic] up to Fourth reich [sic] to be disciplined," said "It seems that three students from the University of Maryland are to be disciplined for shouting down the detestable abhorrent vile Lynne Cheney wife of the mass-murdering serial killer Vice-President Dick."
Such international attention may signal the twilight of our fifteen minutes, though it’s hard to say. The administration followed the scandal by releasing a statement saying that we were "never charged." The story, said the university, had been blown way out of proportion. While I couldn’t disagree with that, we did have documents proving we were charged, which the Diamondback then ran on its front page. Technical translation: the administration was lying. The emails again started coming in, and the AP once more picked it up.
Since then, Aravosis has entered talks with the screeching heads, O’Reilly and Co., so don’t be surprised if you flick on Fox one night and see a confused O’Reilly struggling to rebut my friend Michael Cawdery’s reasoned challenge, "Bullshit, Bill." For my part, I would still like to know two things: If Mary Cheney marries a woman, will Dick give away one of the brides? And will Lynne be in attendance?
RYAN GRIM is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. He is the author of This Is Your Country on Drugs (Wiley, 2009).